Two Books

* Vera Tobin, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot (Harvard University Press, 2018)
* Bradley Irish, Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling (Northwestern University Press, 2018)

Before my summer abdication from blog duties, I briefly mentioned the Cognitive Futures event (info here), and one of the papers I enjoyed there was by Vera Tobin, whose book on surprise in fiction I have now finished. Around the same time, I heard from Bradley Irish, who had come across my blog post about the poet John Skelton and the way he works with disgust. He pointed me towards his new book, which looks at the writings of the Tudor court in the light of modern theories of emotions. I think these are both excellent, with many impressive qualities, but in this post I just want to pick out one feature of each.
      Tobin brings a constructive and positive attitude to things that are sometimes disparaged. Surprises may seem like a rather cheap trick for authors to play on readers, but they can of course be handled in extremely subtle and sophisticated ways. In parallel, the cognitive biases that Tobin discusses are not treated, as they sometimes are, as ‘a form of moral weakness and failure’. Rather than seeing the short-cuts that can leave us open to deceptions and illusions as comic and/or culpable, she accepts them as functional, helping all that cognitive work get done without it becoming too much. So the interaction between surprise and the mind is not a set of gleeful but belittling exposures — how foolish we are, how exploitative literature is, how easily fiction’s features are explained, etc. — Tobin gives credit on all sides, takes things seriously, and still manages to write an entertaining study.
      The achievement I’d pick out in Irish’s book is the way he makes historical circumstances and cognitive perspectives interact so productively. I have often seen people worry that it’s not really feasible to illuminate the intricacies of life in the past with the findings of modern laboratories. For my part, I have felt that one can be attentive to the differences in past mental worlds, while also believing that there are qualities of human cognition that cross over chronological boundaries. Irish manages, I think, to make his 21st-century understanding of disgust, for example, more than plausible as a means of generating insights into the satirical writing of Henry VIII’s reign (including Skelton). Taking a cognitive turn might make one an even better observer of history.

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New Angles on Mind-Wandering

* Paul Seli, Michael J. Kane, Jonathan Smallwood, Daniel L. Schacter, David Maillet, Jonathan W. Schooler, and Daniel Smile, ‘Mind-Wandering as a Natural Kind: A Family-Resemblances View’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 479-90.
* Mladen Sormaza, Charlotte Murphy, Hao-ting Wang, Mark Hymers, Theodoros Karapanagiotidis, Giulia Poerio, Daniel S. Margulies, Elizabeth Jefferies, and Jonathan Smallwood, ‘Default Mode Network Can Support the Level of Detail in Experience During Active Task States’, PNAS,

Back from a summer recess to take note of two papers on mind-wandering, which has been such a favourite topic on this blog. It was the subject of my British Academy Shakespeare Lecture back in May. I recently realised that you can get the audio of that event right here. It was only bearable for me to listen to about six seconds of the talk, from which I conclude that either I or the audio sound a bit soupy, and whatever sentence I was uttering had neither shape nor sense — but that is actually quite a positive response from me, and the listening-in didn’t ruin my happy memories of the evening.
      In the lecture, I say that I think that the modern science of mind-wandering has things to tell us about Shakespeare’s plays, and also that we can see in return that Shakespeare knows things about mind-wandering, and makes use of it. There will be a written version published next year, and it will definitely take account of the exciting essays cited above, which both include as author Jonathan Smallwood, who kindly spoke to me before the lecture and helped me past a few misconceptions (though he cannot be blamed for any that remain).


The first, by Seli et al., proposes that if we want to understand the various kinds of mental process that gather under the umbrella of ‘mind-wandering’, we should take a ‘family resemblances’ approach, which means ‘treating it as a graded, heterogeneous construct’, with a view to achieving ‘a more nuanced and precise understanding of the many varieties of mind-wandering’. This might be better than taking ‘task-unrelated thought’ as a necessary and sufficient definition, and it might be better than rigorous taxonomies that devote energy to saying what should not, as well as what should, count as mind-wandering. This all sounds very sensible to me, and it seems to fit with the emphasis on networks, interactions, and complexity in brain functions, that I keep reading about.


The other paper has a more concrete proposition to make, but it is also an attempt to broaden our understanding of the mind-wandering field. A group of brain regions known as the ‘default mode network’ (DMN), as has been discussed on this blog before, and in my lecture linked to above, has often been seen as crucial contributor. It has seemed to be important in ‘task-unrelated thought’, in a positive and constructive way: ‘it plays an integrative role in cognition that emerges from its location at the top of a cortical hierarchy and its relative isolation from systems directly involved in perception and action’. However, the findings discussed in this paper point towards an expanded understanding.
      By combining brain-scanning and subjects’ self-reporting (of… ‘dimensions of thought that describe levels of detail, the relationship to a task, the modality of thought, and its emotional qualities’), the authors found a link between the DMN and the level of detail in on-task thought. Thus they maintain that ‘activity within the DMN encodes information associated with ongoing cognition that goes beyond whether attention is directed to the task, including detailed experiences during active task states’. So it’s important that this network isn’t only associated with the wandering mind, but then again it’s also important that this network that encodes information (and detail) is active when off-task. General detail-maintenance is an interesting item to add (with an asterisk) to the list of things associated with mind-wandering and the DMN (e.g. in the Corballis book I noted back here).

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Two Systems? and Summer Shut-Down

* David E. Melnikoff and John A. Bargh, ‘The Mythical Number Two’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 280-93.

Around this time of the year, I usually think ‘I need to have fewer things on my things-to-do list!’, and pause the blog for a while. I then restart when I have read enough interesting articles that the inspiration starts to overflow. A month or so? Maybe two?
      Next week I will be attending the ‘Cognitive Futures in the Humanities’ conference in Kent. I’ll be on ‘we’ business (still rolling on this track). The programme can be found hereabouts. I am sure this will mean I pick up lots of good ideas and reading suggestions. And of course I’ll be catching up on several months of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Before signing off, I will say a brief something about the Melnikoff and Bargh essay cited above. There’s a link here with the topic of my previous, brief post. There the worry from the psychologists was that their terminology overlapped too much with everyday usage. Here the worry is also about simplification and popularisation, in the form of ‘two types of psychological processes: one that is intentional, controllable, conscious, and inefficient, and another that is unintentional, uncontrollable, unconscious, and efficient’.
      The argument is that the ‘two systems’ approach lacks empirical support; it’s a ‘convenient and seductive’ approach’, they say. One target, for example, is a dual-system theory of memory. They cite by Shanks and Berry that doubts the distinction between implicit and explicit memory that was at the heart of about half of my book Memory and Intertextuality in Renaissance Literature (2016). (Don’t worry: I am sure I hedged my bets about the absolute final rectitude of the science I was citing there; I usually do. It’s a gift and a curse.) Another target is the ‘fast and slow thinking’ described by Daniel Kahneman. The big worry is that two-systems approaches are taken as definitive by organisations outside psychology (‘like the World Bank and Institute of Medicine’) and turned into practical policies.
      Here’s their key analogy, which I found both helpful and not helpful:

We say that there are two types of cars, convertibles and hard-tops. No debate there. But now we say: there are two types of cars, automatic and manual transmission. Yes, those are certainly two different types of cars. And still further: there are two types of cars, gasoline and electric motors. Or: foreign and domestic. The point is that all of these are different types of cars. But we all know that there are not just two types of cars overall: convertibles that all have manual transmission, gasoline engines, and are manufactured overseas; and hardtops that all have automatic transmission, electric engines, and are made in our own country. All around us we see counterexamples, automobiles that are some other combination of these basic features.

I suppose, yes, that this gets across that when this two-systems model draws in different qualities of cognition to divide whole minds into two types, there are risks involved. However, in cars at least, the localised binaries can tell us things. There are hybrid cars of course, and being electric or not doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a car is environmentally excellent. But still there are times and ways that discerning this kind from that kind can enable some insights. That’s probably true of minds too; but as on previous occasions I’m thinking in quite a literary-critical way here, welcoming dynamic, provisional tensions that offer a new way of seeing the world — but not things that necessarily aim to converge on a true big picture.


I’ll leave you with a song. Not really day-appropriate at the time of posting. But very good, I think. I actually couldn’t see how this collaboration (two of my favourite artists working with a special song) would work well, and didn’t listen to it for a while. But then I did, and it’s an understated treat.

‘Are there multiple memory systems? Tests of models of implicit and explicit memory’, Q. J. Exp. Psychol., 65, 1449–1474.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Finding the Right Words

Olivia Goldhill, ‘Psychology will fail if it keeps using ancient words like “attention” and “memory”‘,
Russ Poldrack, ‘How folksy is psychology? The linguistic history of cognitive ontologies’,

A very quick post, this one, owing to (stop complaining Raphael!) a very busy time at work. I’ve been sitting on these two blog-type salvoes for a while, wondering what I think about them. They’re saying… psychology is using words like memory and attention which are (i) old, and (ii) folky. So the discipline is using the same language it used in its infancy, and it’s using words that are polluted by a set of loose and general associations.
      Well, this is interesting. On the one hand, yes, technical refinement probably should go along with a language that is technical and refined. On the other hand, psychology is often talking about things that regular people recognise in their everyday experience, whereas quantum physics isn’t, and that should perhaps be reflected in its terminology. And I would prefer to read things that are trying to speak to me, as an interested person, than ones that are not. But then again, I have myself in these very virtual pages complained at times about loose use of familiar words (mostly when they are being used in ways that are unnaturally narrow), and worried about the way that some popular psychology books attract the attention of general readers by (perhaps) overstating the real-life relevance of experimental findings.
      I find myself undecided, of course. But also I’m thinking that this debate helps a words-person like me see that psychology is pushed and pulled in interesting disciplinary and interdisciplinary directions.

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Effort, Reward, Difficulty

* Reading Beyond the Code: Literature and Relevance Theory, edited by Terence Cave and Deirdre Wilson (Oxford, 2018).
* Michael Inzlicht, Amitai Shenhav, and Christopher Y. Olivola, ‘The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22 (2018), 337-49:

The first of these is a landmark collection made up of essays putting an important theory of communication into conversation with literary criticism. I’m in it so of course I am biased, but I think it includes some outstanding work by people who aren’t me, and I want to make a bit of noise about it. The theory of communication in question is ‘relevance theory’ as formulated by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, the latter being one of the editors. (The other editor is Terence Cave, whose book Thinking With Literature featured in this post by Emily Troscianko.)
      This theory explains communication as a process of inference, based on a recipient establishing the meaning of an utterance with reference to the contexts that make it relevant. It sets itself against ‘code models’ of communication (hinted at in the title of the book) that conceive of the process as a speaker encoding something and a listener decoding it: the importance of contexts, and the resourcefulness of recipients in deducing which of these give an utterance a function, is crucial.
      It seems to be that a lot of literary criticism gets by without an explicit theory of communication, and/or indeed by not thinking of reading (or writing) as a kind of communication. At the very least, it seems profitable to me to bring these things back together, and the essays in the book validate that effort. My contribution is about Robert Herrick’s poem ‘Corinna’s Going A-Maying’, and in it I think about how poems communicate across history, the different timescales they inhabit and invoke, and some of the opportunities and problems of a historicist approach.

Relevance theory is referred to as a ‘cognitive pragmatics’. One reason for this is that it shares an effort-reward structure with many models of cognition. The recipient will search for a context that gives relevance, and once a sufficient threshold is reached, then the meaning of the communication will be inferred. The effort will be no more than is required to release enough relevance — in some scenarios not much relevance will be necessary or hoped for, so the effort will be abandoned sooner. Sometimes we are listening carefully and avidly and will be ready to offer more effort for more reward.
      The effort-reward dynamic comes into focus in the Inzlicht et al. essay cited above. Their argument is that in various ways the usual assumption, that effort will be avoided if possible, does not always apply. Humans sometimes select activities because they require effort, as if the effort involved adds value. More research is needed, they argue, to understand what attracts people to mountain climbing, ultra-marathons, sudoku, DIY, and ‘the surprising popularity (and fundraising success) of charity events that require those raising money to expend substantial effort to reach their goal’.
      They don’t cite the novels of James Joyce or the poetry of J.H. Prynne, but they could have — there are analogous aspects to people’s choices of reading. (The same applies in relation to relevance theory: the number and complexity of the contexts that could release meanings from literary utterances may be formidable, but many find them correspondingly rewarding.) At present there are questions rather than answers, but the attractiveness of difficulty, which may train us to do things, or may make us better people (morally? or just with fitter psychologies?), is a rich topic. More please!

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]